An old African proverb recites: “When the elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”, meaning that only the weak get hurt while the powerful fight – it is in this concept that Robert Longo and Pablo Picasso briefly meet.
Robert Longo could be described as an iconoclast of his time, as he draws scenarios that are challenging – not only in their meticulous technique but also in their subjects. Longo’s œuvre critiques the figures of power and their authority over society in strong, black and white contrasts; his technique merges the traditional use of charcoal to contemporary conversations, as he draws photorealistic images.
Picasso, on the other hand, is considered the founder and pioneer of Cubism. His political engagement shows through his most famous painting: Guernica. He painted it condemning the Spanish Nationalists and their role in the bombing of the namesake Basque village in 1937 – the result is arguably one of the strongest political statements ever painted on a very large canvas.
Robert Longo recreated Picasso’s Guernica for the exhibition Robert Longo: Picasso Redacted (2015) in the attempt of creating a new picture of his own that “would still carry the similar weight and impact as Picasso’s original Guernica did” – as the artist said. Longo’s Guernica offers more to the interpretation: the triangular composition is fractured in six thick, black bands that cover most of the horror in the painting. This seemingly counterproductive move calls the attention to what’s blocked from view and pushes the audience to a deeper investigation of what’s happening behind those stripes.
With his drawing of Guernica, Longo makes the bombing of the village contemporary and connects it to our time. He shows how violence and injustice constantly repeat themselves in history and how the artist should address these topics overtly – a responsibility he consistently stays faithful to for his drawings.
In December 2014, the shooting of an unarmed black man by the police triggered mass protests in the United States: a large number of people, lead by the black community marched in Berkeley against police brutality, under the line of “Black Lives Matter” – which has eventually become the name of their global group. The originally pacific march grew out of proportion and, eventually, clashed against the police violently – it’s in the images of those moments, shared by the mass media, that Longo found his inspiration. Two years later, he explored the topic of public protests in the drawing Study For Fear and Loathing, Berkeley, 2014 in which Longo depicted the police as an army of faceless men – as they are completely unrecognisable due to their protective gear. It’s easy to imagine the protesters in the place of the audience – who, suddenly, find themselves against the police, hence, in a position of weakness against authority.
His depiction of the clashes in Berkeley blends with his representation of Guernica: the images in the news are blinding as they are revealing, as the audience can’t see any further than what’s presented due to their crushing clarity. By purposefully hiding parts of violent episodes, Longo gives more to be seen and to investigate in both artworks, replacing the act of mindlessly looking with seeing and engaging with the drawings. In a time where news and images can be shared in an instant, and the people have the luxury of being able to ignore atrocities, piercing that numb sense of comfort is a key concept to Longo. In his words: “To undermine is to create a space where people can see what they can’t see or choose to ignore.”
Although Picasso and Longo belong to very different artistic and political eras, a thin thread connects them in the dual fascination and condemnation of human power: their resistance to violence resonates in their artworks, making them relevant to the ongoing conversation on political oppression.